Writing Part-Time – Feasible For A Living?

wptfIt seems like everybody’s doing it. Part-time writing, I mean. This past summer, for example, full-time First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton started a weekly newspaper column for Creators Syndicate of Los Angeles. Full-time singer/songwriter Judy Collins was plugging her first novel, Shameless. And Little, Brown announced it was advancing full-time actor Ethan Hawke $300,000 for his first novel.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

Of course, for every part-time writer who snags a $300,000 advance, there are hundreds of other writers who struggle to pay for postage. Part-time writing has many rewards, but big money isn’t always one of them. A 1994 survey conducted for the Authors League Fund reported that the median hourly wage for “limited part-time” writers (those giving it fewer than 30 hours a week) was $3.47. And that was the good news. Part-timers who spent more than 30 hours a week at it earned a measly $2.96. In my own experience, I’ve had years when part-time freelancing boosted my income by 30% or more. I also had a year when I spent more money than I took in and had to claim a loss on my taxes.

But, profit or loss, most of my fellow part-timers seem to be enjoying themselves full-time. Here, from their experiences and my own, are some part-timely tips.

Seize the Moment

When you think about it, all writers are really part-timers. Even men and women lucky enough to make a living with words still have to sleep, eat, get their teeth cleaned twice a year and fill out the occasional tax form.

Fact is, even if you have a full-time job, you probably have more spare hours at your disposal than you realize. Let’s do the math. Say you work 40 hours a week and spend another ten hours commuting. That’s just 50 hours out of the 168 hours in any seven-day week. You’ve still got another 118 hours to do with as you please. What’s more, you can usually find 15 minutes here or half an hour there within those 50 hours to write, or at least to plan your next move.

I’m not claiming that part-time writing is always easy. For one thing, not all hours are created equal. If you’re like most people you probably think and write more clearly at 10 in the morning or 4 in the afternoon than you will at the end of a long, tough workday. And if you have a family, there will be days when you want to go to your computer and they want you to go to the mall. But with a little creativity and a lot of discipline, you can make the time you do have really count for something.

Research may be the biggest stumbling block for part-timers, particularly nonfiction writers. You may be happy to write from 10 p.m. to midnight, but chances are the people you need to interview would rather talk to you between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. One solution: Try to schedule your interviews during whatever free time you can carve out during the day. For this article, I interviewed three writers at lunchtime and caught a fourth just after I got home from work. Because I live in the East and the fourth writer lives in the West, I was able to interview him at 7:30 my time, which was still just 4:30 his time. West Coast writers can take advantage of time-zone differences at the other end of the day, by making calls to people in the East before work. When it’s 6 a.m. in Burbank, it’s already 9 in Boston. (And they’ll never know you’re still in your pajamas.)

Other ways to make time for research:

* Use spare vacation days. Jay Stuller, who works full-time in Chevron Corp.’s public affairs department and freelances for major magazines, tries to do most of his reporting by phone. But he saves some vacation time for stories that require out-of-town travel. An article on the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport published in Smithsonian, for example, required five vacation days of reporting–and he never even got to leave the airport.

* Learn the hours of your local libraries. You can probably squeeze in some library time at lunch, after work or on weekends. In a pinch, librarians will sometimes look things up for you and answer your questions over the phone.

* Start your own library. Save yourself some trips to the library (and spend that time writing) by building a decent reference collection at home. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. In writing this article, I was aided by the 31-year-old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica I’ve had since boyhood. You might find a newer set (one that actually knows something about Watergate, Neil Armstrong and the Rolling Stones) for next to nothing at a used-book sale. Or, if you have a computer with a CD-ROM drive, you can get a nearly up-to-date encyclopedia on disk for about $60.

* Hook your computer up to an online service. These services–CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, among others–put a ton of research material at your disposal (newspapers, magazines, government data, you name it) whenever you want to access it. You can also use their bulletin boards to connect with real people. That’s useful, for example, when you need anecdotes for an article. (See Dave Schoonmaker’s “Caught (Up) in the Web” in the January WD and Skip Press’s “What’s Online for You?” in the April WD, for more information.)

* Interview by mail. I’ve done this on rare occasions when I wasn’t able to reach a subject by telephone. Some people will just throw your letter out, of course, or never get around to answering you. Others, however, will be so intrigued by your quaint approach that they’ll answer more thoughtfully than they would have on the phone. I’ve found this technique works well with authors and others who are comfortable putting words on paper. It’s also an option if you–or your subject–are shy by nature or easily tongue-tied.

Get Down to Business

Once you’ve made some time to write, the next step is actually putting words on paper. That, as we all know, can be the toughest job of all. There’s something about having to concentrate on your writing that sets off every car alarm in the neighborhood, gets the phone ringing and starts the baby crying. The late Robert Benchley, whose skill as a humorist seems to have been matched only by his resourcefulness as a procrastinator, once offered this principle for getting things done: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” So try a little reverse psychology: Tune out the distractions and pretend that instead of writing, you really should be balancing your checkbook or waxing the car.

Many writers find it helps to have a regular place to work. You don’t necessarily need a corner office or even an office or, for that matter, even a corner. B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist famed for conditioning rats to press levers and pigeons to play Ping-Pong, conditioned himself to write for two hours every morning at a certain desk in his home. When he wanted to write a personal letter or pay bills, he did it in another part of the house.

Marissa Piesman, author of four mystery novels and the recently published Alternate Sides, has trained herself to write on the subway as she commutes to her job as an assistant state attorney general in New York City. “The subway is actually an easy place to concentrate,” she says. “It’s so noisy that you don’t get distracted by other people’s conversations. And there’s nothing much to see out the window.” Writing in longhand on a steno pad, Piesman found that she could do 400 words during her 45-minute morning commute–or a 2,000-word chapter every week. At the end of 36 weeks, she had a 35-chapter, 70,000-word manuscript. Piesman’s routine has worked so well that she now writes on the ride home, too.

Whether you write at a rolltop desk or in a rolling subway car, you’ll also need a place to keep your works in progress. A filing cabinet is fine for filing things away, but that’s also its main drawback. Out of sight, out of mind, as the 15th-century monk and part-time writer Thomas a Kempis observed.

To keep yourself motivated (and to make yourself feel guilty if you waste spare moments when you should be writing something), stow your work in plain sight. I’ve found one remarkable, low-tech solution: the shoe box. Through some miracle of package design, the standard men’s shoe box is just the right size to hold letter-size file folders upright. One shoe box can easily accommodate several dozen file folders stuffed with article ideas, clippings and manuscripts in progress. Plus, you (or your significant male other) will have an excuse for buying shoes whenever you need to expand your filing space.

Choose Your Targets

Part-time writers learn pretty quickly not to overpromise. Don’t, for example, propose an article in which you’d walk the path of Lewis and Clark, unless your real-job boss won’t miss you for the next two years or so.

Rick Wolff, a full-time editor of business, sports and humor titles for Warner Books, and the part-time author of more than a dozen books of his own, offers some simple advice: “Try to pick subjects where you don’t have to do much research because you already know about it,” he says. “Say you’re an accountant whose hobby is gardening, and you’re very proud of your pumpkins. It probably wouldn’t make sense for you to try to write a novel about 18th-century Russia. But you could write about the best ways to grow pumpkins or how to keep raccoons away from your crop.” Following his own advice, Wolff, a former minor league ballplayer, has focused most of his books on baseball.

If you aren’t already an expert on, say, pumpkins or pinch-hitting, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about them. Indeed, one joy of freelancing is the constant learning of new things. But it’s also possible to waste months or even years researching some topic that no editor will be interested in. A good middle ground, I’ve found, is to do enough research to write a persuasive query, then stop. If you get a go-ahead from an editor, you can then invest the time necessary to become an expert. If you don’t, consider your general knowledge enhanced and move on to another story idea.

Beware the Boss

Being a part-time writer can be, alas, a good way to get yourself in trouble with your full-time employer. As a general rule, try not to do anything that would give your boss the idea that your writing is more important to you than your full-time job (even if it is). For example, if you’re writing a savage expose of your company, or a comic novel whose most idiotic character bears a striking resemblance to your company’s president, it’s probably not a good idea to do it on the office computer or to leave the manuscript on your desk.

Jay Stuller, who has successfully juggled corporate work and part-time freelancing for 22 years, says, “I always do anything I’m supposed to do and then some.” And he contends that the freelancing he does actually benefits his employer. “I learn a lot from the things I’m exposed to in doing outside projects,” he says, “and I bring that back to the work I do here.”

Your employer may well have rules on outside work, including writing. If you don’t know, ask. And if you value your job, do your best to comply with them. I had to check with my masters at Time, Inc., before writing this article, for example. To protect yourself, try to get any rules on outside writing in writing.

When all else fails, consider a pen name. That’s the story behind “Stanley Bing,” a Fortune magazine columnist who also wrote for Esquire for more than a decade. Under his real name, Bing has a day job he characterizes as “a senior type for a vast multinational conglomerate.” While Bing’s secret identity isn’t as secret as it once was, it does have its uses. “At the beginning it was a way of protecting me from my employers,” he says. “Now it also serves to protect my employer.” That is, the readers of Bing’s column on office life or his book Crazy Bosses won’t automatically assume he’s writing about his particular vast multinational conglomerate.

Writing under a pen name does have a downside, of course. “You must have a strong core ego,” says Bing, “because you’ll hear people at the office praising something your alter ego just published, and you can’t even tell them that it was yours.”

Sell Yourself

Selling is a tough job for any writer, and it doesn’t get any easier when you’re doing it part-time. Not only do you have fewer hours to research new markets and polish your queries, but the mere fact that you’re a part-timer will sometimes be held against you. One magazine editor recently told me that she won’t assign anything to part-time freelancers, simply because she can’t count on them to be available at a moment’s notice to answer questions or do more work on a manuscript.

How can you combat this perception? Simple: Don’t advertise your part-time status. Don’t lie about it if you’re asked, of course, but unless your full-time job is relevant to the story you’re pitching, there’s no compelling reason to bring it up. Many editors don’t care whether you’re full-time or part-time–as long as you can deliver on time.

The pseudonymous Stanley Bing says it’s particularly important for part-timers to cultivate relationships with editors. “Get to know as many editors as you possibly can,” he says. “Develop long-term relationships with them. That way you’re not always pitching ideas to editors who don’t know you. And never say no, no matter how busy you are.”

One of the best part-time gigs I’ve had in nearly two decades of freelancing was a series of Q&A interviews I did for seven years for a slick quarterly magazine published by a big accounting firm. The interviewing was fun, the editing was top-notch, and the money wasn’t bad either. Most important, I could schedule the interviews (and the weekends for transcribing the tapes and writing them up) well in advance, to avoid any conflicts with my full-time work. Bing has another bit of shrewd advice for part-timers: “Charge enough to make it worth the invasion of your life space,” he says. “Don’t work for cheap.”

To which I’d add only: unless you really want to. Because when you’re a part-time writer, you’re your own boss. More so, in fact, than all but the richest of full-time writers. So whether it’s fortune, fame, or simply the pleasure of a well-crafted page that motivates you, go for it.

As for me, I’d better be getting ready for work.

Give Credit Where It’s Due: Citing In Writing!

cwIn the recent movie Seven, Brad Pitt tracked down a killer who modeled his crimes after the seven deadly sins. If the killer had taken a more professional view of sin, he might have plotted quite differently. For a doctor, I suppose, the great sin is leaving a sponge in the patient. For an accountant, it’s got to be moving money from your clients’ ledgers to your own. And for a writer, of course, the deadliest sin is plagiarism.

Every writer has heard stories of careers ruined by a single, inexplicable slip of passing someone else’s work off as his or her own. Yet every writer also knows the importance of thorough research, including hitting the books with secondary sources–in short, using other writers’ work. So where’s the line between deadly sin and dogged reporting? And how do you keep from crossing it without losing your own readers in an ocean of attribution (“according to a story by Jane Schmoe on page 4, column 3, in the Jan. 20, 1993, New York Times, the President of the United States is Bill Clinton”)–or, heaven forbid, resorting to footnotes?

You’ll find gray areas throughout this topic, to be sure, but you can pick your way through most such dilemmas if you’re prepared with, first, a basic understanding of copyrights and, second, some general principles of attribution.

Author, May I?

A grasp of copyrights comes first because these rules govern what and how much you can safely copy into your own work–regardless of how you attribute the source. It may not be plagiarism to include a huge hunk of another author’s writing in one of your articles, dutifully giving credit where credit is due, but if you failed to obtain permission to reprint that text the result is equally sinful in the eyes of the courts.

Now, I don’t pretend to be a copyright expert–nor do you need to become one in order to author articles that cite secondary sources. But consider this my disclaimer that the advice herein represents merely practical, hands-on guidelines for general copyright issues from a working writer’s perspective. And please don’t sue me if I steer you wrong!

As a working writer with a stack of articles and three books out there, I occasionally get requests to reprint my work. When the request comes from a writing teacher wanting to photocopy one of my Nonfiction columns for her class, I always say yes. (Because it’s only a few copies, I’m not even certain such use requires my permission–so much for my copyright expertise–but some copy-store franchises are particularly vigilant about this.) If it’s a commercial publication wanting to rerun something I’ve written, I’ll usually ask for a fee.

Those are the easy cases. And the extremes of copyright are similarly clear: Copying an entire work requires the writer’s permission (unless–and this shows how nothing’s truly easy in this arena–the writer has been dead long enough for the copyright to expire). The opposite extreme is equally easy to accept, if harder to define: You need not obtain the author’s permission to quote just a few words from a work. This falls loosely under the fair use provisions of copyright protection.

Fair or Foul?

But what’s brief enough to constitute “fair use”? Whole court cases have been wrangled over this issue, so please go back and reread my “I’m no lawyer” disclaimer before proceeding. These are my general rules of thumb in deciding whether a quotation is fair:

* For most quotations from other writers’ works, a selection of about 25 words or fewer seems safe to use without obtaining permission. It’s hard to see how borrowing such a small portion of a book or article damages the author. If you need to cite more than a few sentences to make your point, try paraphrasing and summarizing in your own words those parts that don’t require the author’s exact phrasing to carry their original weight or wit. (Paraphrased humor, for example, tends to lose its punch in translation; mostly factual material can be recast more readily. Fair use or not, though, don’t forget the attribution (which I’ll discuss below).

* If you are writing about what you are quoting–for example, reviewing a book–longer and more numerous quotations from the original are generally acceptable. This is the “spirit of review” in copyright: It’s fair to quote from a work you are reviewing.

* Be careful of quoting too much from such brief works as popular songs. Reprinting 25 words from a book of 100,000 words barely dents the original, but reproducing one verse from a song that boasts only three plus a chorus means you’re parroting perhaps a fourth of the whole. Because of that threat, and the dollars at stake in the pop-music business, music publishers take copyright wrongs much more seriously.

* If in doubt, make the extra effort to obtain written permission from the author or other holder of copyright. When citing a magazine article where you don’t know how to contact the writer, start by writing to the magazine. If obtaining permission becomes too difficult, time consuming or costly, rewrite and Vigorously paraphrase. For my book How to Write Fast (While Writing Well), one magazine demanded several hundred dollars in exchange for its permission to reprint about 50 words that I wanted to quote as an example of effective writing; I opted instead to rewrite the whole section, boiling down the quotation in question to a couple of words.

He Said, She Said

Once you’ve battled through the bramble of copyrights and wrongs, you still have to make some decisions about attribution. As with how much to quote, there’s a happy medium to be found in how much to attribute and how thoroughly.

If You’ve obtained written permission to quote something, the copyright holder will probably request specific verbiage as part of granting permission. This notice need not go in the body of your book or article, however: For books, it generally goes in an acknowledgments page at the front; for articles, it usually takes the form of fine print at the end.

Again, that’s the easy part. It’s the gray areas that’ll get you.

We’ll have to rely on more generalizations here, since (disclaimer ahead! every instance is different. As one general rule, then, whenever you are quoting another writer’s actual words–as signaled by surrounding them in quotation marks–attribute them to the writer by name, just as you would with a spoken quotation.

This isn’t as obvious as it might seem. Recently a columnist I know decided to opine about the movie version Of The Scarlet Letter, in which the filmmakers substituted a happy ending for Hawthorne’s original. The columnist quoted what the movie’s director had told “a reporter” about the happy-facing of Hawthorne. Unfortunately, that anonymous “reporter” happened to be the movie critic at the columnist’s own publication–and the critic was understandably miffed about being cited at length without credit by name.

Think how you’d feel about being made generic: “a reporter,” “an author,” an interviewer.” If in doubt, use the name of the reporter/author/interviewer.

Similarly, err on the side of citing the source in which the quote was publish ed. In the first draft of my new book for Writers’ Digest Books, Structure and Flow, I quoted a number of other writing experts such as William Zinsser and Jon Franklin. My eagle-eyed editor suggested that in each case I cite the specific book from which the quote was taken (Zinsser’s On Writing Well, for instance, or Franklin’s Writing for Story). Not only is this more fair to the source; it’s more helpful to the reader, who might want to seek out the book in question. (An author is also less likely to object to being quoted if the context includes, in effect, a mini-advertisement for his or her book!

The same holds for authors of articles. If you’re quoting my wit and wisdom (or even spotlighting my lack thereof), I and your readers would rather you attribute fully: “As David A. Fryxell wrote in Writer’s Digest ….” Include the author’s credentials, too, when they add weight to the quote that follows: “As Nonfiction columnist David A. Fryxell wrote in Writer’s Digest. . . .”

Even when you’re not quoting someone’s exact words, you should attribute any substantial reproduction or paraphrasing of another person’s work or ideas. Just as you would note the speaker when using an indirect quote, you should credit the original writer of material that you are reporting. Handle quotes, direct and indirect, from written works much the same as you would quotes derived from interviews: If you didn’t think it up, tell the readers who did.

Just the Facts

But surely there are occasions when you don’t need to ask permission nor even clutter up your prose with lengthy attributions, right?

True, you’re writing articles and books, not term papers. Not every fact you gleaned from a secondary source must be attributed, much less footnoted with page numbers and Latin lingo.

The key word there in fact. For starters, remember that you can’t copyright facts. If an astronomer discovers that there are not nine but ten planets in our solar system, he can claim the credit and maybe even name the planet–but he can’t copyright that fact. You could freely write, “There are ten planets,” without obtaining copyright permission. You could even state the fact without attributing it to the astronomer.

Some facts, however, you will want to attribute to their source in order to add credibility to your article. If the news of a tenth planet is still unfamiliar to your readers or especially if it remains in some scientific dispute, you should attribute the information: “According to Professor Henry Spacely of the Planetary Institute, the solar system actually has ten planets.” It’s also more fair to your source to properly credit original or ground-breaking fact-finding–and, just as with my lesson in Structure and Flow, it’s a favor to your readers who might want to learn more.

Similarly, attribute to the source any statistic or survey result or other claim of fact that might benefit–in your readers’ eyes–from the weight of authority. You don’t need to attribute “Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809″ to “the World Book Encyclopedia, volume L,” as you might in a junior high report. But you might want to credit a controversial new theory about Lincoln’s assassination–lest readers conclude that you’ve simply hatched this notion yourself

As this last example shows, attribution becomes more important the less clearly “factual” your facts seem to be. Ideas aren’t the same as facts; they demand credit (or blame) where it’s due. There may be a gray area in between “7 is a prime number” (a fact) and “7 is the key to unlocking your human psychic potential” (a theory or idea), but don’t let that murkiness confuse your readers. If in doubt, attribute.

Don’t be fooled, either, by facts in the form of direct quotations. Here the choice is unambiguous: Attribute the quote to who wrote it. For example, “Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809″ could be a straightforward statement of fact in your own words. But if the source you consulted actually said, “Abraham Lincoln’s long journey into the American consciousness began in 1809,” don’t reproduce those exact words and pass them off as your own.

That, after all, would be plagiarism. And, as a noted Nonfiction columnist once observed, “for a writer, of course, the deadliest sin is plagiarism.”

How To Set Up A Blog On Your Own

suyobIf ever you want to know how to set up a blog on your own, the first thing to do is to have the right knowledge on search engine optimization. There are numerous online sources that you can make use of about SEO so you will not have a hard time studying it. However, it is also important to consider the branding of the blog.

Before starting everything, you have to have a vision on what your blog will be about. This is so important because online users can remember your blog through the branding you have created. Thus, you should choose a niche properly if you are starting to know how to set up a blog. Through this way, you will not have a hard time gaining online presence because of the numerous visitors that come to read your blogs every day.

Lastly, you can also seek SEO services online if ever you do not know how to place your articles properly. The fees for these services vary according to their expertise and your need. Therefore, you have to consider these costs before anything else. The best way to set up a blog is still doing the right research online. Resources like this one help.

Steps On How To Best Start Your Blog

There are different steps on how to set up a blog. Whatever works best for you, it should be followed. However, writers often choose their own niche first and foremost. This is so important because the niche will determine your success and failure. It is not advisable to hop from niche to another because it can drive confusion to readers. That is why; you have to choose the niche that you can work on for the rest of your blogging life. Typically, it is not difficult to choose a niche. If you are fond of crafts, arts or dog training, you can choose the strongest among them. After such, formulate the right keywords. Search engine optimization involves choosing the right keywords aside from knowing how to set up a blog. This is not difficult because there are numerous resources online that you can make use of. In fact, some software that is sold online provides keyword selection. You simply have to write articles about these keywords and place it properly.

The Best Way To Blog
Knowing how to set up a blog is not difficult as long as you know the right techniques for it. Before lurking on search engine optimization, a good preparation is always necessary. First, be able to know the niche that you can work for the rest of your life. This means that out of your strengths, focus on the best topic that you can write about and update from time to time. It is important to have one niche for a website so that you can create a brand on your own and not drive confusion towards your readers. Readers will know you for your niche because of that. Second, know how to set up a blog by choosing the most marketable keywords. Keywords are very essential in search engine optimization that is why you have to purchase a software that can help you with keyword selection or you can search online to be guided properly.

A website having good and marketable keywords is often recognized by search engines so if you do not want to be left behind, always choose the best. Third, write articles on your niche from time to time. Establishing regular readers and knowing how to set up a blog can be done by keeping them updated with your posts.

Tax Tips For Bloggers!

ttfbEvery April 15th you have a chance to join the biggest literary community in the US: the hundreds of thousands of taxpayers whose Form 1040 read “Occupation: Writer.”

Unlike applying to a writers’ colony, everyone is automatically accepted. However, the IRS then calls in 1% of the applicants for an interview–also known as an audit–to decide who cuts the mustard. Writers who pass get to keep their deductions; the IRS brands the rest mere hobbyists.

Fortunately, advice for writers abounds in the Internal Revenue Code, the IRS’s regulations and the Tax Court’s case law. Heeding this advice will greatly increase your chances of writing off your expenses. What’s more, the guidelines resemble the tips your writing coach might give you.

Uncle Sam’s Writing Tips

* Write more. The more time you spend writing, the more serious you appear to the IRS, regardless of genre or content. Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, even though he only typed and retyped the same sentence day after day, would not have flunked this part of the audit.

* Don’t give up your day job. You can write evenings and weekends as a sideline; this is perfectly okay with the IRS, as long as you intend to make a profit from your writing. But how do you prove you’re in it for the money?

* Submit to paying markets. If you send poetry to magazines that only p in copies, you’re acting like a hobbyist. Don’t bother filing Schedule C, “Profit or Loss From Business.” Do you pay reading fees and enter contests that offer cash prizes? That’s more like it! You’re spending money to make money. Once you’ve got a fistful of clips, woo editors who actually write checks to their contributors.

If you’re a journalist, raise your sights from stingy local weeklies to trades and slicks. Though not written into the Code, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s dictum prevails in spirit: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

* Avoid the passive. To make it as a writer, you have to hustle. Don’t let rejection get you down! Send that short story right out again. IRS auditors don’t care if you submit simultaneously; they just want to see that you’re active. The fact that you wrote an article three years ago will not impress them as much as it did your mom. (In fact, she’s probably getting impatient with you herself).

* Track your submissions. A chart will help you keep all your pieces out there all the time. It also makes for dandy evidence at an audit. Bring along copies of your cover letters and every rejection slip you’ve ever received, and the auditor will begin to see the light: This person is serious about writing. The payoff. Write-offs.

* Consult experts. The IRS frowns on entrepreneurs who launch a new venture without getting expert advice. So stock up on writing books, take those classes, attend those workshops, subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Boldly claim the cost on Schedule C, with the government’s blessing.

* Computer, typewriter or pen? Whatever tool of the trade you favor, you can deduct the cost as a legitimate business expense. For pricey purchases that have a useful life longer than one Year, add Form 4562, “Depreciation and Amortization,” to your tax return. Either write off the cost over a five-year period or, if you had enough earned income, deduct up to $17,500 worth of equipment in the year you “buy it. (Ribbons and refills go right on Schedule C as supplies,” whether you earned any income or not.

* Keep a journal. Just as you take note of fleeting inspirations for later use, jot down those evanescent expenses you run up. The information will be handy come April, when you’re working on the final draft of your tax return. Remember to pick up receipts at the post office and the stationer’s. Routinely log your auto mileage in a glove compartment notebook (you can claim 30[cts] a mile for work-related car trips in 1995). If you already rely on an appointment calendar, the record-keeping battle is half won.

Mind you, the IRS’s requirement for receipts isn’t absolute. It used to be that you didn’t have to keep a receipt if you were claiming an expenditure for business travel or entertainment of less than $25, as long as you jotted down the time, place and date of the expense, and the business purpose, and your business relationship with the people you fed or entertained. Starting Oct. 1, 1995, this limit rose to $75.

But think for a minute before opening up the window and tossing your receipts like confetti. The handy, thing about receipts is that they already have the amount, date, time and place on them, as well as the name of the restaurant. Isn’t it easier just to keep the receipt and scribble on it, “Lunch with Deep Throat–RMN knew” “Also be aware that you must keep receipts for lodging on business trips.

You still can’t deal with collecting and filing little pieces of paper? The IRS will allow you to use a per diem allowance for meals while you’re on a business trip. Depending on your destination, you can legally claim you spent from $26 to $38 a day for food when you traveled away from home overnight. (You can then deduct only 50% of this amount; the tax laws are convoluted and badly in need of editing.

* Set aside a place for writing. Your writing coach may have talked up the advantages of having a cubby where nothing can distract you from the page or the screen. The IRS feels the same way and will reward you for such devotion to your craft. This boon applies only when the home is your principal place of business.

If you have a net profit from writing and use one-fifth of your home regularly and exclusively for writing, you can deduct one-fifth of the utilities, insurance, repairs, cleaning and rent (or real-estate tax and mortgage interest) on Form 8829. Incidentally, when novelist Georges Simenon lived in Connecticut, he successfully wrote off half the expenses of his farmhouse. The percentage you can take will depend on how big your cubby is and how nimy bookcases are scattered around the rest of the house.

Note that you must have a net profit in order to take the office-in-home deduction in the current year. What’s more, you can’t create a loss by taking the entire home-office deduction, though you can reduce your net profit to zero. However, Part IV of Form 8829 allows you to carry forward any unused loss to the next tax year, and the next, and the next, until you finally hit the bestseller charts and auction off the movie rights. Hint: Keep those past-year rent checs in your tax file, so that you can haul them out at your audit in the year 2001.

* Take care of your health. Try to get out of the home office every once in a while, even if it’s only for a spin in the car. Unlike company employees, who cannot deduct their morning and evening commute, people with home offices can deduct every business trip of the day. As long as it doesn’t take you put of your way, no auditor is going to complain if you stop halfway between the library and the copy shop for a jog around the pond.

There’s a small break on the health insurance from too. If you pay for your own health insurance and you showed a net profit from writing in 1995, you can now deduct 3096 of the premiunis you paid on line 26 of Form 1040. This figure is up from 25% last year. However, the dollar amount you take off cannot exceed your net profit.

* Some day you’ll make it. If you’re serious, you’ll keep plugging away. While you’re at it, keep writing off your expenses. True, the IRS has a presumption that you must show a profit in three years out of five in order to take deductions on Schedule C. Note, however, that this is a rebuttable presumption.

If you can show at an audit that you’ve followed the IRS’s own tips for writers-devoting time to your craft, trying to sell your work, honing your skills and keeping good records–the auditor may throw in the towel. Consider hiring a knowledgeable advocate (a CPA or EA).

* To be a great artist you need not suffer. IRS auditors are somewhat suspicious of people who may actually enjoy their work. Don’t let that faze you. As a Tax Court judge once remarked, “Suffering has never been made a prerequisite to deductibility.” What’s more, your intention to make a profit need not even be reasonable, but merely genuine. Viewed in this light, Jack Nicholson’s demented author might have breezed through an audit.

7 Steps For Organizing Your Articles

7sfoybLet’s say you’re writing a piece titled “How to Grow Bigger and Brighter Begonias.” Before you start writing, organize your research material through a system of indexing and filing; you must know where everything is and how to get at it easily. (If your notes or interview transcripts aren’t extensive, you can simply number your notebook pages, then make a list of broad information categories with references to page numbers.

* Stop thinking of your article as an article. Concentrate only on the first step-your opening. What is it about growing begonias that most interests you? What will be most interesting and valuable to your target reader?

Start writing with a good begonia-related line that will grab readers’ attention, set the right tone and get to the point quickly (be sure you know what the main point of the piece is). If your lead and what follows feels right, keep writing, all the way to the end.

However, if you sense that the article is getting away from you and you’ve lost your focus, stop.

* Look at the writing as a construction process of informational blocks.

Make a 3 x 5 index card for each block and label it accordingly. For our example article, you might have index cards labeled “Joy of Growing Begonias,” “How to Get Started” “Types of Begonias,” “Seasonal/Weather Factors,” “Special Tools,” “Fertilizers,” “Common Mistakes,” “Costs Involved” and so on.

* Lay out your cards in the order of the article you envision writing. Step back and look your cards over, start to finish. Think of them as a blueprint.

Does your article introduce your angle clearly (beginning), develop your main points in logical progression (middle), conclude satisfactorily (end)? Do your blocks seem to fit seamlessly, focusing in on your angle and theme, or have you gone off on tangents? Are related pieces of information scattered or grouped together? Have you duplicated certain information or points? Do cards suggest sections that could be trimmed, deleted, turned into sidebars?

* Create new cards for points you may have overlooked but want to cover; delete unnecessary blocks/cards that stray from your angle.

Rearrange the cards until the sequence feels right to you. As you do this, ask yourself: “What is my next, logical block?” (Logic is invariably the key to effective transition.) “Where should my article logically go from here?”

For instance, are you writing about fertilizers without first identifying different begonia types, basic information that might more logically be placed near the top? When you’ve finished your sections on special tools and fertilizers, would it be appropriate to discuss costs? Or would costs be more smoothly included along the way, with each product? Should tools be handled separately in a sidebar? And so on.

* Resume writing, from the top. Write until a block feels complete, relying on your organized research files when necessary. Keep writing block after block, building your article a section at a time, until you feel you’ve told the readers exactly what they need to know about growing bigger and brighter begonias, but nothing more.

* Rearrange the cards as necessary as you revise the article. Don’t be surprised if you delete whole blocks–or material within blocks–that are extraneous to the narrow focus you’ve chosen. Remember; you’re writing an article on a particular angle of begonia growing, not a book on the general topic.

“Organization” can be taken too far, of course. Beware of becoming so meticulous and rigid that the process becomes paralyzing, robbing your writing of its natural energy and rhythms. Your goal is to get your piece down on paper in as continuous and natural a process as possible, letting logic be your guide.